A coach worth remembering: Fred Yancey retires as Briarwood head coach

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, November 27, 2018

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

NORTH SHELBY – Down 17 points at halftime in a semifinal game against St. Clair County, Briarwood head football coach Fred Yancey prayed asking for wisdom on what to tell his team having lost faith in the comeback for possibly the first time in his long tenure.

“Fellas, you have lost this game,” Yancey told them with a long pause before continuing. “Unless you can come up with the greatest second half in the history of Briarwood Christian School. That’s what it will take if we are going to win this thing.”

Yancey didn’t know how his team would react, but they did so with a boisterous cheer erupting with excitement and confidence heading out of the locker room and into the second half.

“I thought to myself “Huh, we’ve got a chance,’” Yancey said of his reaction to their excitement. “They gave me hope when I really had just about lost it.”

The Lions overcame a 27-10 deficit by outscoring the Saints 27-6 in the second half to pull off a 37-33 win and claim a spot in the state championship.

That story is one of the most memorable of Yancey’s 29 years at Briarwood, and showed that the 73-year old head coach could not only still learn from his players and how they respond, but that late in his career, he could have one of his most memorable moments leading a team.

Now, at the end of his 29th season with the Lions, Yancey won’t be able to learn from his players anymore, nor will he be able to challenge them in those halftime situations that he loved so much as the coach has decided to retire as the Lions’ head coach.

It’s a decision that weighed heavily on him knowing what all he was losing, but it was a decision he knew it was time to make, as he will carry a lifetime of memories with him. 

The decision

“I really knew it was coming,” Yancey said. “As I was heading into my 70s, I thought ‘Nobody needs a guy 70 years old to be coaching them, that’s just too old.’”

Yancey was surprised by how good he felt when he did reach his 70s, however, that he decided to keep doing what he loved.

“I didn’t feel like I was near ready once I hit 70,” he said. “So I didn’t. But every year, I would think, ‘I can’t keep this going forever, and I have to be timely in making a decision.’”

Last year, Yancey said he strongly considered retiring, but wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger.

“This year before the season, my wife and I talked and prayed about it,” he said. “We just felt like this would be a great group of guys to wrap it up with. It will be best for all. The program is going to continue on in a great way and I’m at a great age to retire.”

While every team holds a special place in Yancey’s heart, this year’s made it an easy decision to go out with their effort.

“When they hit the 10th grade, they contributed immediately and helped lead us to the semifinals,” he said. “Their enthusiasm for football is just unmatched and last year’s juniors were just a part of a great team.

“This year, we weren’t as great of a team, but we were a very good team and they carried us. They never faltered, even when it wasn’t an easy season, and I appreciate that.”

It was a senior class that went to the semifinals of the state championship as sophomores, the state championship game as juniors and a third consecutive playoff berth this past season holding an overall record of 35-6 in their three years.

“This has just been such a neat place for me to enjoy doing what I do with people that care as much as I do,” he said.

Where it all began

Yancey got his start in coaching in Memphis in the 1960s thanks to the influence of one of his coaches in high school, similar to the impact he’s had on many himself as a coach.

“One of the reasons I became a coach was because my high school coach and brother both had such impacts on me as coaches,” Yancey said. “People who influence us, tend to be people we want to be like. I really never considered wanting to do anything else for a living. From the time I was in junior high, I wanted to be a high school coach.”

In Tennessee, Yancey started his coaching career early on, but always felt like he was looking over his shoulder at his brother Bob Yancey’s success.

“He wasn’t a bad guy to emulate, and that’s what I did,” Yancey said. “He was so successful and I wanted to be like him, but at the same time I felt like I was having to look over my shoulder, and wasn’t really learning as much as I needed to.”

That’s when Yancey got his chance to head to Georgia to coach Gatewood Schools from 1978-1980 where he had quick success.

“That’s when I really started to learn how to be a coach,” Yancey said. “I was forced to stand on my own two feet. I made plenty of mistakes, but was able to learn from them.”

Once he was able to grow as a coach, Yancey headed back to Tennessee to coach at Evangelical Christian School from 1981-1989, before eventually starting his historic career at Briarwood Christian School in 1990. 

His touted defenses

In his time at Briarwood, Yancey became known for putting strong defenses on the field each and every season, which was part of what made him such a storied coach.

In three of his first four years with the Lions, Yancey’s teams gave up 20-plus points per game. After that, Briarwood went on a stretch where his teams didn’t give up more than 16.6 points per game in 18 consecutive years. Overall, in his 29 seasons with the Lions, Yancey’s teams gave up less than 20 points per game in 23 of them.

The way Yancey implemented that consistency was with use of the two-platoon system. At the beginning of each season, Yancey chooses just a couple of players to keep on the offensive side of the ball, while allowing his defensive coordinator to pick other players to use on the defensive side of the ball.

“What that does is put a lot of our best players on that side of the ball,” Yancey said. “Their athleticism and talent could help us out on offense, but having a lot of our best players on that side of the ball helps us stay in every game at the 5A level.”

Yancey said that’s something that helped him stay ahead of the game or even with the game despite the course of change in football.

“Offensively, you used to just have smashmouth football and the option,” Yancey said. “Now you not only have to deal with smashmouth at the line of scrimmage football, but you have to deal with option football and the throwing game.

“Defenses have to be spread out more than they used to. They can’t just focus on stopping the dive play or lead play and winning. Offenses are harder to deal with now than they used to be.”

Having his best players on that side of the ball has helped counteract those changes, which has led to some stellar performances by his teams.

That scheming and game planning of how to stay ahead of his opponents will now take on a new meaning, however, with his focus now shifting to his next challenge of retirement. 

What’s ahead

“I wish I could answer what I’m going to do with my retirement by telling you I have these big wonderful plans… and here I go,” Yancey said with a laugh. “Honestly, I’m going to be one of those guys that can’t figure that out at this point, because all I’ve ever done is coach football and be a dean of students. I’m going to have to look around and figure out what the best plan is.

“I think the Lord will give me some real direction on that. I just would love to be useful to other people, but don’t know how it’s going to fall yet.”

That’s the key Yancey harped on. While he’ll miss challenging kids and helping them every day, he hopes to still find a way to help other people in his retirement. 

“I think the biblical way is to be a servant leader,” Yancey said. “We learn that through the scripture that you lead through service. That’s what we have tried to teach our guys and I hope that I have served my teams, coaches and players well year-in and year-out.”

Leaving a legacy

Everything he built along the way from his start in Tennessee to his 29-year career at Briarwood is what his legacy will be remembered for.

In his 29 years at Briarwood, Yancey led the Lions to 27 playoff berths, including the last 26 years in a row, had 11 trips to the semifinals, six trips to the state championship and three state titles (1998, 1999 and 2003). His only times missing the playoffs were in his second and third seasons (1991-1992).

Yancey’s overall record was 278-95, while he went 136-23 in region play, including 16 region championships, while boasting a 59-24 playoff record. He also led the team to 32 consecutive regular-season victories from 1996-1999.

Those are all numbers that will likely never be duplicated at Briarwood, and it’s a playoff record that any other coach would die for.

But his legacy won’t be remembered just for those accomplishments or the trophies he has put in the trophy case.

Instead, Yancey will be remembered by his memorable halftime speeches, getting the best out of each player, always being a role model, inspiring players to become coaches and follow in his footsteps like he did his brother’s and high school coach’s and loving the challenge of the game with a passion.

The coach hasn’t changed much over his coaching career, and his message stays the same heading into retirement—straight from Proverbs 3:5-6

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight,” it reads.

“That’s become my life verse and my life advice for my players,” Yancey said. “We use that verse every week and it’s the best advice I’ve ever known. If there is one message I want to leave with everyone, it’s that one.”